August Schleicher

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August Schleicher

August Schleicher (born February 19, 1821 in Meiningen , † December 6, 1868 in Jena ) was a German linguist . He is considered the founder of the family tree theory in comparative linguistic research and, together with Franz Bopp, a pioneer of Indo-European studies .

August Schleicher researched the relationships within the Indo-European language family . He saw linguistics as part of the natural sciences . He defined language as a natural component of life whose changes - similar to the development of biological species - are subject to the laws of evolution . On the basis of his research results, he drew the origin of the Indo-European languages ​​in August 1853 in one of the first " family trees " published in the history of linguistics and biology (there for example by Charles Darwin ). The Compendium of Comparative Grammar of the Indo-European Languages (1861) is regarded as his main work .


Monument in Sonneberg, Kirchstrasse

August Schleicher was born in Meiningen as the son of the doctor Johann Gottlieb Schleicher (1793–1864). In the summer of 1815, as a student in Jena, his father was involved in founding the original fraternity, which at that time agitated for democratic reforms and against feudal small states in Germany. In 1821 the family moved from Meiningen to Sonneberg , where his father worked as a medical officer in the Meininger Oberland . The progressive-minded father and the musically talented mother ensured that the linguistically gifted boy had a good education. August Schleicher spent his childhood and youth in Sonneberg, from where he attended the Casimirianum high school in nearby Coburg from the age of 14 . His professor at the grammar school came to the conclusion that because of his broader interests, he was not well suited for a language course and should study theology .

Following this advice, August Schleicher began to study theology in Leipzig in 1840 after graduating from high school, which he had to take at the Georgianum grammar school in Hildburghausen . After the first semester, he briefly switched to the Protestant university in Erlangen and realized that theology appealed to him less and less. From Erlangen he went to Tübingen and came into contact with Hegel's philosophy . Hegelians from the Tübingen monastery such as David Strauss , Jakob Reiff , Ferdinand Baur and Friedrich Vischer taught there. Schleicher dealt with philosophical questions, abandoned theology and, as a pupil of Heinrich Ewald, switched to studying oriental languages. In a very short time he learned not only Hebrew but also Sanskrit , Arabic and Persian . In 1843 his father only reluctantly agreed to move to the university in Bonn . His father warned him in a letter: “A philologist is a wretched rascal, especially if he really is one. It is not worthwhile to spend money on this course of study. ... It is completely different for a village pastor when he builds up his community and softens their hearts. "

Schleicher studied classical languages in Bonn , was introduced to Wilhelm von Humboldt's linguistics by philologists such as Friedrich Ritschl and Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker , and completed his studies in 1846 with a doctorate . In Bonn he then dealt with comparative language studies and gave lectures on this at the university.

In 1848 August Schleicher returned to his hometown Sonneberg in Thuringia and initially carried out research as a private scholar in the field of linguistics. Prince Georg von Sachsen-Meiningen , who had also been there as a student, had noticed him in Bonn . The Hereditary Prince had not only offered August Schleicher his friendship, but had also given him a generous scholarship that enabled him to travel extensively from 1848 to 1850 and to do long research in Paris , London and Vienna . During his trips abroad he worked as a correspondent for the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung and the Kölnische Zeitung . In his reporting on the political events of 1848 from Paris and later from Vienna, he showed open sympathy for the liberal-democratic faction of the National Assembly in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt . He was targeted by the Habsburg police, who spied on him during his stays in Vienna and Prague for several years. In 1850 he followed Georg Curtius to Prague to study Slavic languages .
In addition to his work as a correspondent, August Schleicher had published a number of important linguistic studies, so that in 1850 the University of Prague appointed him extraordinary professor for classical philology and in 1853 professor for comparative linguistic research, German and Sanskrit . He got in touch with Franz Tschelakowski and Paul Schaffarik and
quickly learned to speak Czech . The preoccupation with the oldest Slavic written monuments led him to his "Theory of Forms of the Church Slavonic Language" (1852). In this exemplary standard work, he introduced the term “ Church Slavonic ” into linguistics.

During his professorship in Prague he concentrated on Slavic languages ​​and Lithuanian , which has a special role in Indo-European studies. In 1852 he received a scholarship from the Vienna Academy of Sciences for a research trip to East Prussia . There he stayed for half a year, learned to speak their language fluently in conversations with Lithuanians and collected a lot of material for the Handbook of the Lithuanian Language , which he published in Prague in 1855/56. In addition to its scientific significance, this handbook is still of inestimable value for the linguistic and cultural self-determination of the Lithuanians. In 1856 August Schleicher withdrew to Sonneberg for over a year because of political repression and probably also for health reasons, where he carried out linguistic field research. Itzgründisch is spoken in the Sonneberg area , a Main Franconian dialect that still offers linguists a rich field of activity today.

In 1857 August Schleicher received the offer to transfer to the philosophical faculty of the university in Jena as a professor . He associated high hopes for his scientific work. The disappointment was great when he came across a conservative professorial body in Jena and led an outsider existence with his scientific and political views. Schleicher is said to have said: "Jena is a big swamp, and I am the frog in it." Since 1861 a congenial friendship developed between him and Ernst Haeckel . With him it was possible to discuss evolutionary and scientific questions that preoccupied him as a linguist. In the same year the Bavarian Academy of Sciences appointed him a corresponding member. In 1863 he was accepted as a full member of the Royal Saxon Society of Sciences . As a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg , August Schleicher worked on three major works: The Comparative Grammar of the Slavic Languages , The Comparative Grammar of the Baltic Languages and The Grammar of the Slav-Baltic Original Language . His early death in 1868 thwarted these plans and contributed to the fact that he remained caught in the role of an outsider in German linguistics.

August Schleicher may have died of pulmonary tuberculosis , the symptoms of which began to appear in his student days. Following his father's suggestions for therapy, he countered the impending consumption with a healthy lifestyle. He had started gymnastics in Bonn and later practiced this sport together with Ernst Haeckel. He also regularly looked for relaxation in the healthy forest air in his hometown of Sonneberg, where he often visited his parents, in-laws and friends. After his death, the city of Sonneberg erected a memorial stone for him and gave Schleicherstrasse his name.

The Indo-Europeanist

Schleicher was the first linguist who devoted himself very seriously to the reconstruction of the Indo-European original language .

Schleicher's family tree model

Schleicher's demand goes beyond the recording of the oldest language level to the development of the original form common to all, not out of a romantic original longing, but to lead everything different back to what was originally common, so that for him Sanskrit was no longer the end point, but Indo-European as the original language before the separation into the individual languages. He was very confident and even wrote a short fable in this reconstructed Indo-European original language. The family tree model, thought through to the end, leads to a common original language for all languages. This is also indicated by certain phenomena of recent genetic research. Schleicher's work was sustainable for Indo-European Studies in three ways. On the one hand, the convention of adding asterisks to reconstructed shapes goes back to him. On the other hand, Schleicher was the first to represent the Indo-European languages ​​in a family tree. The sound laws usually quoted are compatible with Schleicher's family tree. After all, a famous student of Schleicher, August Leskien , co-founded the Young Grammar School in Leipzig.

It is no coincidence that the Leipzig School came from a researcher who saw Indo-European Studies as a kind of natural science. The first sentences of his main work ( Compendium ... ) read:

“The grammar forms part of the science of language or glottics. This itself is part of the natural history of man. Your method is essentially that of the natural sciences in general ... One of the main tasks of glottic is the determination and description of the linguistic clans or language stems, i. H. the languages ​​that come from the same original language and the arrangement of these clans according to a natural system. "


  • Comparative language studies. / On the comparative history of language. (2 vol.) Bonn, HB König (1848)
  • Linguistic research. Part 2: The languages ​​of Europe in a systematic overview. Bonn, HB König (1850); re-edited by Konrad Körner, Amsterdam, John Benjamin (1982)
  • Form theory of the Church Slavonic language. Bonn, HB König (1852); Reprint Hildesheim, Verlag Gerstenberg (1976)
  • The first divisions of the Indo-European indigenous people. General newspaper for science and literature (August 1853)
  • Handbook of the Lithuanian Language . (2 vol.) Weimar, H. Böhlau (1856/57)
  • Lithuanian fairy tales, proverbs, riddles and songs. Weimar, H. Böhlau (1857)
  • Popular things from Sonneberg in the Meininger Oberlande - phonology of the Sonneberg dialect . Weimar, H. Böhlau (1858)
  • Brief outline of the history of the Italian languages. Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 14.329–46. (1859)
  • The German language. Stuttgart, JG Cotta (1860); revised and re-edited by Johannes Schmidt , Stuttgart, JG Cotta (1888)
  • Compendium of the comparative grammar of the Indo-European languages. (A brief outline of the Indo-European original language, ancient Indian, ancient Iranian, ancient Greek, ancient Italian, ancient Celtic, ancient Slavonic, Lithuanian and ancient German.) (2 vols.) Weimar, H. Böhlau (vol. 1 1861 digitized and full text in the German text archive ; vol. 2 1862 digitized and full text in the German text archive ); Reprint Minerva GmbH, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, ISBN 3-8102-1071-4
  • Darwinian theory and linguistics - open letter to Dr. Ernst Haeckel. Weimar, H. Böhlau (1863) ( digitized and full text in the German text archive )
  • The importance of language for the natural history of man. Weimar, H. Böhlau (1865)
  • Christian Donalitius Lithuanian Seals (with Lithuanian-German glossary edited by A. Schleicher), St. Petersburg, Russian Academy of Sciences (1865)
  • Darwinism Tested by the Science of Language. (Translation from German by Alexander VW Bikkers) London, JC Hotten (1869)
  • Darwinian theory and linguistics. Weimar, H. Böhlau (1873)
  • Phonology and form theory of the Polish language. Reprint Sendet Reprint Verlag HR Wohlwend, ISBN 3-253-01908-X
  • Comparative language studies. Reprint Minerva GmbH, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, ISBN 3-8102-1072-2
  • The theory of forms of the Church Slavonic language explained and comparatively presented. Reprinted by H. Buske Verlag, Hamburg (1998), ISBN 3-87118-540-X


Web links

Commons : August Schleicher  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Chronicle of the city of Sonneberg 1757-1802 by Johann Martin Steiner . The Oberland administrative and judicial authorities, Stadtarchiv Sonneberg 2017, p. 35, ISBN 978-3-00-058293-6
  2. August Schleicher attended the grammar school in Coburg, but as a resident of Sonneberg was forced to take the final exams in the Duchy of Saxony-Meiningen for sovereign reasons
  3. ^ Members of the SAW: August Schleicher. Saxon Academy of Sciences, accessed on November 25, 2016 .
  4. ^ Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza : Genes, Peoples and Languages. The biological foundations of our civilization. Hanser, Munich a. a. 1999, ISBN 3-446-19479-7